Advance.net's NJ.com is recruiting bloggers to drill deep into local news, down to the neighborhood-level coverage of soccer leagues and recycling rules that has long bedeviled metro dailies.
If all goes well -- Advance.net execs stress it's a big "if" -- those bloggers will be networked and sold to the kinds of local advertisers that can't afford Advance's New Jersey dailies, which include the Newark Star-Ledger and Trenton Times.
The move is a flank-protector against the likes of Google's locally targeted search ads. It's also a next-generation attempt by major metro dailies and their Web sites to cover the ultra-local space.
"We want to get down to the community newspaper level," said Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net and editor in chief of the Jersey Journal. "We feel we're going to face competition for that local space from both town Web sites and the big content hubs like Google."
Advance.net's plans are another sign of how blogs are becoming entrenched in the mainstream media landscape. It helps that logorrheic buzzmachine.com blogger Jeff Jarvis is Advance.net's president and creative director. Mr. Jarvis, though, is more apt to credit technology, citing the availability of both automated ad software and blog software that reduces the cost of production "to nil." (Content costs are also nil: Advance.net won't pay bloggers.)
"Is it possible to set up a local ad network for these blogs?" asked Mr. Jarvis. "That's the ideal, but we are a ways away from that."
Pam McNeely, senior VP-group media director at Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif., said Advance.net had a "cool idea" but expressed reservations over the blog form itself. "There's no guarantee" an ad message won't show up next to "incendiary" content.
Mr. Jarvis said misbehaving bloggers could easily be de-linked. And, he added, Google's work with AdSense "proved advertising can work on content with cooties."
That Advance.net is even considering such a move is further evidence how blogs differ from their antecedents-photocopied or desktop-produced 'zines that came from thousands of independent publishers. Those sometimes funneled writers to mainstream publications but the titles themselves did not make that leap.
"Blogs have already had a greater impact than 'zines," said Ana Marie Cox, who edits the scabrous and hilarious D.C.-based blog Wonkette and who's written for 'zines, blogs and print magazines.
But this does not make selling ads across networked blogs a slam dunk. "This is still unproven," Mr. Jarvis said-voicing a notion that the man behind some of the Web's most engaging quasi-professional blogs heartily seconded. "Everybody is getting wildly overexcited about the potential for blogs as a business," said Nick Denton, whose Gawker Media encompasses the likes of Wonkette and Gawker and is readying an L.A.-based blog. "At the moment they're hobbies."
Still, Advance.net is not the only company considering networking blogs for advertisers. Henry Copeland, founder of blogads.com, which allows bloggers to set prices and sell ads on their sites, said his company is currently testing similar notions after aggregating geographic, demographic and topical data from bloggers they've already signed up. "Looking out a year or two or three-that's where the fun is," Mr. Copeland said. "The ability to help advertisers reach really obscure niches they wouldn't otherwise be able to reach." Blogads.com's placed ads for Time Warner's Road Runner broadband Net access provider as well as a host of political campaigns.
Advance.net is focusing on the towns of South Orange, N.J. and Northampton, Mass., to test its approach. Bloggers are being sought via meetup.org, Mr. Jarvis said, and the company plans guerrilla marketing via such old-media means as handbills. Once a "critical mass" of local bloggers and some enhancements are made to other local Web offerings, like Advance.net sites' community calendars, they'll begin seeking advertisers.
The history of big-city papers plumbing localized spaces is not a pretty one. Arguably the most ambitious recent move came in 1998 when The Los Angeles Times began publishing 14 editions of "Our Times" community papers -- a move discontinued shortly after Tribune Co. purchased the paper in 2000. One industry analyst said big dailies were not well set up to microtarget.
"It's one thing to have a reporter in South Orange, N.J.," said David Cole, editor-publisher of trade newsletter NewsInc. and a longtime newspaper consultant. "It's another to be able to drop 750 very specific papers into South Orange."